When it was announced that The Elephant Man, starring Bradley Cooper, was coming to Broadway I thought “Here’s another example of vanity casting.” Then I read the rapturous reviews from the Williamstown production and read how important the story of Joseph Merrick was to Cooper. The show has moved to Broadway with its three excellent leads, Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson, intact. This is a glowing example of what can go right when Hollywood comes to Broadway.
I am happy to report that Cooper dispels any “Sexiest Man Alive” nonsense in his sensitive portrayal of Merrick. The audience watches as slides of Merrick are displayed on stage as, not employing any prosthetics, Cooper morphs into the Elephant Man and stays in character for the play’s entirety. It is a physical tour-de-force. Deformed and dejected, Merrick is first treated shabbily as a freak and we don’t hear him speak initially, just howl in anguish. He is taken under the wing of Nivola’s Dr. Treves and befriended by Clarkson’s Mrs. Kendall. Merrick has a home in the hospital, but for an outcast who had never had a home there remains an underlying sadness.
The first act of this play flew by but I found the second act drag more and be a little heavy-handed with metaphors. This play would have been ideal at 90 minutes with no intermission. There are a number of references to what people see, or don’t see, when looking into a mirror. The upper-class people (and even royalty) who visit Merrick project what they want to see upon him as his needs and wants remain simple. Cooper has a sweetness to him as people even though he has moved from one cage to another. The ending can be viewed as either a final act of control or a giving up. Either way it is a heartbreaking end to a heartbreaking life in a heartfelt production. AFW
Booth Theater 222 West 45 Street
Through February 15, 2015
1 hour and 55 minutes (including 15 minute intermission)
Tickets $79-$169, premium seats available, discounts currently not available